The Numismatic Bibliomania Society



The E-Sylum: Volume 16, Number 27, June 30, 2013, Article 7


The July/August 2013 issue of Paper Money (a publication of the Society of Paper Money Collectors) cover article by Terry Bryan goes to great depth answering a question that many obsolete currency collectors may be curious about - exactly how did 19th century banks cut cancel their notes and checks?

Many of these have large cuts in an "X" shape. It turns out that there was a special tool for this. It was a very simple tool - a hammer called the cancelling hammer. Rather than a flat end for hammering nails, it had an X shape, and with one whack a clerk could cancel a bill or small stack of bills.

Editor Fred Reed kindly supplied me with the following text and image excerpted from the article. It concerns a book about a crime in Jackson, TN involving a bank hammer as a murder weapon. See the book's cover for an illustration of a (bloodied) bank hammer. Thanks! -Editor

Gold is the Key A magazine article made passing mention of Carl Bolt, an antique tool collector in Oroville, CA. His museum is recognized as the largest documented antique tool collection in the United States. Although he does not have a bank hammer, he referred me to The Hammer Museum in Haines, Alaska ( They retain an example close in size to the one at Lee Valley Tools. Their curator, Dave Pahl, informed me that a book had been written about a bank robbery involving a bank hammer. The author had contacted them for information and images. supplied the book within days, of course. Gold Is the Key by Thomas L. Aud was published by Braybree Publishing in 2012. It details the story of a bank robbery of the Jackson, Tennessee branch of the Union Bank in 1859. The bank’s clerk/teller lived on the premises. He was induced to open the bank after hours, perhaps by an acquaintance. The vault was opened, and the teller was evidently writing in the bank’s checkbook when hit from behind. He received several blows over the head with the “check hammer belonging to the bank, weighing five or six pounds.” Another contemporary account refers to the weapon as “a hammer used in the bank as a canceling one.”

The murderer took the time to steal only the larger gold coins. “Throwing aside the bills payable in Jackson,” he took only paper currency from distant banks, such as Knoxville. The Nashville newspaper reported the stolen currency was from all the Tennessee banks, the Bank of the United States, and from banks in Alabama and Mississippi. An estimated $6,000.00 in gold and $11,000.00 in currency was taken. In 1985, city workers uncovered a cache of gold coins all dating before the robbery. Citizens descended on the site, and it is not known how many coins were finally discovered. It is a reasonable assumption that this was part of the stolen money.

Mr. Aud has made a great effort to bring together everything known about the crime and its aftermath. Many of the players still have living relatives, and the book includes regional genealogy and historical scene-setting perspectives. Collectors can add it to their library under topics of obsolete currency, bank history, financial crime, and gold coin hoards.

The Union Bank in Jackson, Tennessee was a branch of the parent bank in Nashville. Uniform printed notes were filled in for the branch bank of issue. Auction records and references suggest that the Jackson notes are very scarce. Paul Garland’s book, Early Tennessee Banks, (1983) lists these notes as 2-4 known. Union Bank notes from other branches are similarly scarce. The murderer was cool enough to sort through the vault’s contents. Enough currency was stolen to prevent the bank from reopening the next day, but the bank remained in business for several more years.

Lacking any scientific police work, the crime was not solved. The gory description of the teller’s injuries suggests the viciousness of the attack. Having a bank hammer in hand, I wondered if such a light tool could do that much damage. I contacted a forensic pathologist.

Dr. Lee Ann Grossberg graciously posted my questions on the Web bulletin board of the National Association of Medical Examiners. I was amazed that responses started coming in within two hours of the posting. Drs. Kyle C. Shaw, Brian Peterson, and Carl Parrott, among others, had interesting suggestions, speculation and questions about the crime.

The pathologists were unanimous that the weight of the hammer was sufficient to cause the catastrophic damage described in contemporary accounts of the teller’s murder. Where today the whole scene would be examined minutely, we have to be satisfied with the few written accounts from 1859. Thomas Aud’s book follows the investigation of many suspects, but no individuals ever went to trial.

Perhaps the accessory sledgehammer was the murder weapon, and might still be described as “the check hammer belonging to the bank.” Perhaps bank hammers came in heavier versions. The only four originals that I have found so far are almost identical. Maybe the punch-form, like these, or a sledge-form were alternate designs. More of them will need to be found.

The contemporary descriptions of the murder mention that the hammer weighed five or six pounds. The bank hammers known to me weigh under two pounds. It seems to me that in 1859, few men would mistake five or six pounds for less than two. People were accustomed to dealing with bulk goods bought by the pound. They were familiar with hand tools. If the old description is correct, this is one reason to suspect that the form of the canceling hammer was completely different, or the weapon was actually the hammer used to strike the “X” punch.

In an odd footnote to Mr. Aud's carefully researched history of the Tennessee crime, the plot outline was used later, apparently as a blatant advertisement for the Pinkerton Detective Agency. Famous "detective" Allan Pinkerton published short stories of his cases. He implied that they were true accounts, but he fictionalized most of his story, “The Detective and the Somnambulist” in 1875. He relates only a few true details of the Jackson, Tennessee murder, but embellishes it from his imagination. One detail added in this account, but not in the historical record, is the assertion that the murdered Tennessee bank teller was clutching a $100 note from the Planters Bank of Savannah Georgia. This appears to be an effort to add a poignant detail to flesh out the false tale.

For more information about the Society of Paper Money Collectors, see:

Wayne Homren, Editor

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